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Channel Esther: A Few More Jewish Movies

Esther Cohen
November 29, 2016

by Esther Cohen

WHAT IS A JEWISH MOVIE? Is it the same as Jewish book, a Jewish anything? Because I am on a Big List, as a Jewish Currents cultural worker, I sometimes get to see some films in advance. Films to tell you about. And some of them are defined as Jewish.

Mitchell Abidor recently reviewed some Jewish films for Jewish Currents readers. So did Elliot B. Gertel. What follows are three more, which might appear near you. (It’s always hard to tell what will happen with a movie.)

The Guys Next Door (directed by Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk) is officially described this way: “An intimate portrait of a real Modern Family: Meet Erik and Sandro, a gay couple with daughters birthed by their friend Rachel who’s married with three teenagers of her own.”

What’s Jewish about this film may be one of the protagonists, Rachel, a Jewish woman social worker, loving, kind, and not too much like people you see in the kinds of movies I watch. She seems content, for one thing. Rachel is married to a man named Eric. She loves having babies, and in the film’s beginning, she is, for the second time, a surrogate mother for her friends, a gay couple who want a baby. She gave them a baby a few years ago, and this will be their second. Rachel and Eric have three children of her own. She’s not doing this for money. Only love, love of the couple who will raise the daughters she carries, and love of a life full of children. There are sixteen people in Rachel’s delivery room, including her ob/gyn brother, the mother of one of the gay men, and Rachel’s teenage daughter. The Guys Next Door is a gentle, moving film that makes the viewer want to be kinder, somehow. Kinder to the people who are in her chosen family.

THY FATHER’S CHAIR (directed by Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora) is the most officially Jewish of the films I watched. It’s a mesmerizing portrait of craziness that happens to be Orthodox.

Here’s the description: “Sixty-something Orthodox Jewish identical twins Abraham and Shraga live together in their childhood home in Brooklyn. Since the death of their parents, they have lost control of their surroundings, allowing trash to pile up and stray cats and vermin to move in. Forced into action by their neighbor, the brothers agree to let a professional cleaning crew invade their unclean sanctuary.”

This film is mesmerizing in a slow slow way, an original odd depiction of craziness, real true domestic disrepair, God, and Hasidic Brooklyn. The brothers look so identical it’s impossible to tell them apart. Their mother, long dead, took care of them until she couldn’t. After she died, they descended into the kind of chaos that comes from never ever throwing anything away, from wild cats, from food and laundry strewn together, and from a profound disorder that seems to be an outer reflection of all that’s inside, all they cannot say. The filmmakers gently captured the process of trying to make their chaos into normalcy. A religious man named Hanan came into the home with a group of chaos cleaners, and they threw years of garbage into big plastic bags. They cleaned the walls, they cleaned the floors, and all the while, Abraham and Shraga just watched. The film was engrossing. I can’t say if it was a Jewish film. But the characters certainly were.

Winter at Westbeth
(directed by Rohan Spong) examines aging in New York by spending a year with three older people whose art is their life: a 75-year-old African-American dancer who’d been with Martha Graham named Dudley Williams; another dancer, 95-year-old orange-haired Edith Stephen who makes experimental films now; and Ilse Gilbert, 82. All three live in Westbeth, an artists community that is itself is a fascinating story, home to many well-known artists, from Diane Arbus to Muriel Rukeyser.

Westbeth Artists Housing is a nonprofit housing and commercial complex dedicated to providing affordable living and working space for artists and arts organizations in New York City. Its campus comprises the full city block bounded by West, Bethune, Washington and Bank Streets in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan; the complex is named for two of these streets, West and Bethune. Its building used to be the headquarters of Bell Telephone Laboratories , from 1898–1966, before being converted in 1968–1970. That conversion was overseen by architect Richard Meier. This low- to moderate-income rental housing and commercial real estate project, the largest in the world of its type, was developed with the assistance of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many of the inhabitants are both Jewish and older. It’s a wonderful place, and the film, in a way that is somewhat impersonal, shows how creativity matters in life, as a way to age fully, as a way to age well.

Esther Cohen’s most recent book is Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg.